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Race & Prejudice > Stir It Up

Gates goes to jail

When communication breaks down with the po-po

 

Published 7/29/2009

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If the po-po shows up at Madea's house, we all know the larger-than-life movie sista is going to jail. We also know that she is not going quietly into the still night. Talk about getting loud! Madea is going to spread the pain far and wide before she goes down.

Madea is a fictional character. Henry Louis Gates Jr., on the other hand, is a real-life Ph.D. who teaches at Harvard University and happens to be an African-American — or in the parlance created by Malcolm X, an uppity nigger.

The po-po showed up at Gates' Cambridge, Mass., home last week after a 77-year-old neighbor saw him and a Moroccan man who drove him from the airport trying to force open the front door of the house Gates rents from Harvard. The police report says she identified the two men as black, but, over the weekend, she denied making that characterization.

Either way, the response was quick — it would seem instantaneous to Detroiters who have waited hours for a squad car to show up after a crime report. By then, Gates was inside and the driver gone. When the police officers showed up, one asked Gates to step outside. Gates, who grew up in the ghetto, stayed inside and informed the po-po that this was his home and that he works at Harvard. He produced documentation to that effect.

At this point it should have been case closed: "Sorry for the misunderstanding, Dr. Gates."

Somehow things went very awry. Gates ended up handcuffed and arrested for disorderly conduct. The story has been hashed over in the media and many brothas and sistas across the land have decried the incident as a clear case of racial profiling. Furthermore, some have pointed out that it is yet another sign that racism is still alive and well in America despite the presidency of Barack Obama. (Obama underscored the persistence of this kind of racism when the Gates incident came up in last week's press conference.)

While folks make a big deal about Gates' arrest, I think it was simply a case of miscommunication. Gates, who had just returned from some weeks in China, is a highly educated man. He probably speaks at least a few languages — they pretty much require that before handing you a Ph.D. The brother obviously forgot what language to switch to when he returned to Cambridge. The driver who brought him home is Moroccan, so there's no telling what language they spoke on the way to the house. Moroccans generally speak Arabic, Berber, French and Spanish with ease.

When they arrived at the house and the front door was stuck, this further disoriented Gates. Add to that the stress of having the po-po show up at your house just as you get home all tired and jet-lagged, Gates was clearly speaking Ebonics instead of American. And the police officer clearly didn't understand what was being said. Case in point: The cop didn't respond, according to Gates, when asked for his name and badge number. Everybody knows that when those words come out of a black man's mouth it sounds like gibberish. The closest sense the po-po can make of those sounds is, "Please beat the hell out of my black ass."

Also, according to the officer's written report, when he asked Gates to step outside, Gates replied, "Ya, I'll speak with your mama outside."

Of course, the po-po was confused as to how the conversation was suddenly about his dear mother. Furthermore, everybody knows that what Gates really said was "yo' mama" not "your mama." Not to mention that the correct translation of the statement is, "Hell no, I ain't going outside with all them police."

In fact, by then several po-po were standing around outside, although I haven't seen any explanation as to why they were all there. The photo of the arrest that I saw showed at least one of the several was African-American. Maybe that explains why Gates did what he did next. Obviously he wasn't going to be arrested for breaking and entering his own house. Getting a bit self-righteous, Gates probably saw a brother in uniform and felt safe enough to step out on the porch, where he was immediately handcuffed and arrested.

The po-po wrote in his report that Gates was "exhibiting loud and tumultuous behavior." The brotha was just gettin' loud. My mother used to tell my father he was talking too loud all the time. My wife tells me the same thing. If you're going to arrest a brotha for gettin' loud on his own front porch, then just line up the paddy wagons and take us all away.

And then there are the photos. Where did the picture of the bespectacled Gates getting arrested on his front porch come from? There he stands between two policemen who stand taller than he is. His hands are cuffed and hanging in front of his groin. At least he could check to see if his genitals were still there. His mouth is wide-open. OK, the brotha was mad and had something to say. The Cambridge police held him for about four hours before being released.

Then there are the mug shots. Amazingly enough, not having been partying all night and getting arrested for drunk driving, Gates looks sane in the pictures. His hair is not all over the place. His face is not bloated and beaten. He actually looks like he could be the man who is a department head at Harvard, recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, and named by Time magazine (in 1997) as one of the 25 most influential Americans.

Gates, showing he knows who he is, later told The Washington Post, "I weigh 150 pounds and I'm 5-foot-7. I'm not going to give flack to a big white guy with a gun. I might wolf later, but I won't wolf then."

Since then the charge has been dropped but the rhetoric is still flying. Even the Rev. Al Sharpton stepped up to say, "I have heard of driving while black and even shopping while black, but now even going to your own home while black is a new low in police community affairs."

All in all, this could be a good thing. The racial front has been pretty quiet since Obama's election. Now Gates is another reminder of what can and does happen to black, brown and poor people when encountering the law.

Maybe Gates can express his concerns directly to the decision-makers of corporate America. Although he was "traumatized," last week, he was reportedly "resting comfortably at his summer home on Martha's Vineyard" after being released. Now, he and arresting officer Sgt. James Crowley have been invited to share a beer with President Obama at the White House. They should be able to communicate well in that setting. I believe beer is the universal language.


MJ matter:
I just finished reading On Michael Jackson by former New York Times writer Margo Jefferson. The 2006 book is a revealing analysis of the MJ phenomenon. Jefferson avoids any opinion on whether Jackson molested children on not. However she concludes that either way, Jackson was demonstrably mentally ill. "At this point Michael Jackson's damage is equal to what his talent was, and that means it is extraordinary indeed," she wrote. I don't recall hearing anything from that angle in the dredging through his life and death. It could explain a lot of things.

Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of Metro Times. Contact him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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